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Topical Questions

Volume 599: debated on Thursday 10 September 2015

The Department’s priorities are a cleaner, healthier environment, a world-leading food and farming industry, a thriving rural economy, and a nation well protected against natural threats and hazards. Over the summer, we published our first ever rural productivity plan to unleash the potential of the countryside by investing in education and skills, improving infrastructure and connectivity, and simplifying planning laws for rural businesses and communities.

Over the summer, we have all been depressed by the refugee crisis across north Africa and the middle east. What consideration has my right hon. Friend given, along with her EU counterparts, to using surplus food stocks, or possibly even increasing food production, to feed those who are starving having fled violence?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. We have given £1 billion of aid to the region, and 18 million food parcels.

In the infrastructure debate, the Government promised they would safeguard our groundwater and sites of special scientific interest from the dangers of fracking. These promises have now been abandoned. The Government now permit fracking in SSSIs, and four out of five of the old water protection zones are no longer frack-free under the new water protection areas. Was the Secretary of State consulted by her Cabinet colleagues about this U-turn on fracking in protected areas, and if so, why did she agree to downgrade these important protections?

We are clear that we have one of the best environmental protection regimes in the world, through the Environment Agency, which makes sure that groundwater sources are protected. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the study produced by the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering—both independent bodies—he will see that it is perfectly possible to frack safely and in an environmentally friendly way.

T2. I welcome the work done by the Secretary of State and the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) on food exports and dealing with retailers, but there is a huge crisis in farm gate prices for milk, beef, lamb and all other sectors. It will be important this year that we get the single farm payment out early or at least on time. Will the Secretary of State reassure me that the Rural Payments Agency is capable of making those early payments? (901247)

I can assure my hon. Friend that we hold regular discussions with Mark Grimshaw to ensure that we keep our commitment to the majority of farmers being paid by the end of December and the vast majority by the end of January. I am also pushing the European Commission to relax some of the inspection controls to make sure we can pay farmers properly. We need to do that to make it happen, otherwise we will be subject to fines.

T7. We are all aware of the challenges affecting the farming industry. In 2013, the EU gave the UK a convergence dividend of £230 million, largely as a result of Scotland’s low payments per hectare. Despite being required by article 23 of EU regulation 1307/2013 to use objective and non-discriminatory criteria, the UK Government chose to spread the dividend across all four parts of the UK, meaning that Scotland got just 16.3% of the funding. This was funding meant primarily for Scotland but which we are not getting. In the spirit of fairness, will the Minister instigate an immediate review and ensure that Scotland does not get ripped off but gets its fair share? (901254)

The hon. Gentleman will understand if I say we are now fully informed. We are grateful to him both for his quick reflexes and for his full information.

We do not accept that the allocation was done unfairly. Scotland gets slightly less per hectare, but because the average holding size is much larger, the average per farm is the highest in the UK. Nevertheless, we have committed to review the allocation in 2016-17 and have made it clear that part of that review will compare land types among the constituent parts of the UK.

T3. I welcome DEFRA’s focus on connectivity in the rural productivity plan. This week, Rural Action Yorkshire said it was nigh on impossible for a rural business to be in business without decent broadband and mobile phone coverage. The final 5% and the “not spots” will require innovation and investment. What comfort can the Secretary of State give to businesses trading in those areas? (901249)

This is an absolute priority for the digital taskforce. We will get to 90% geographical coverage for voice and text by 2017, and we are currently consulting on taller mobile phone masts to enable better coverage for things such as 4G in rural areas as well.

The Minister will be well aware that the Labour Welsh Government have introduced regulation to improve conditions in dog breeding. Does he have any plans to introduce similar legislation in England to tackle some of the horrific conditions that back-street dog breeding gives rise to?

Yes, we have looked at this, because there was a misunderstanding on the part of some local authorities that a licence to breed dogs was not required provided that people were breeding fewer than five litters a year. We clarified that last year with local authorities because anyone in the business of breeding puppies requires a licence, but we continue to keep this under review.

T4. When on 9 August two cattle visited a supermarket in my constituency, they will have been disappointed to note that the only lactose-free milk was imported from Denmark. There is no such product made in the UK. Does the Secretary of State agree that this is an opportunity for import substitution, to use British milk, and an export opportunity? (901250)

My hon. Friend is right: there are new products where British producers could certainly innovate and also huge opportunities for import substitution of many existing products such as butter and cheese, the majority of which we import at the moment. One thing we want to do is to get supermarkets labelling things more clearly, so that consumers know whether a product is British.

Given the volatility in Northern Ireland’s milk market—the price is the lowest across the United Kingdom—and its dependence on the export market, will the Secretary of State give urgent consideration to treating Northern Ireland as a special case when it comes to the targeted aid scheme that the EU will be talking about tomorrow?

The details of the €500 million scheme have yet to be decided, but I am clear that it has to go to immediate help for farmers. We know that many farmers are struggling to pay bills and have serious cash-flow issues, so as well as long-term measures such as getting a futures market for dairy to give more confidence and promoting exports, we need to help with cash flow, which I am clear is a real issue in Northern Ireland.

T5. May I thank the Secretary of State and her team for the efforts they made to help to eliminate the cryptosporidium virus that affected households across Lancashire for up to five weeks, leaving them without clean drinking water? Will she look into the levels of compensation, which I believe are currently completely inadequate, being offered by United Utilities to the homes and businesses affected? (901251)

I welcome the fact that the final boil notices were lifted on 6 September and that compensation has been offered, but I understand that for many businesses this really was a difficult period in which they incurred many additional costs. I would be happy to discuss the issue further with my hon. Friend.

What benefit can my constituents in the dairy sector in west Wales expect from the €500 million emergency fund brokered in Brussels this week and, critically, what share of that funding could the Welsh Assembly Government and other devolved Administrations reasonably expect?

The answer is that we have yet to find out the details of that fund. We are pushing for details, because I am clear that we need to make it immediate so that we can help with the cash-flow issues that farmers are facing. We shall obviously have discussions across the UK about how it is distributed. I also want to see action from the European Union on things such as inspections to make sure that we can get BPS payments out as early as possible, and we have not heard the details on that either.

T6. I met a delegation of local dairy farmers during the summer regarding the problems in their industry. One of their suggestions was that the Government do more to market dairy products as part of a healthy diet. Will my hon. Friend take that suggestion on board and perhaps resurrect some of the “Drink milk” television commercials that I fondly remember from my childhood? (901253)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The dairy part of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board does some promotion of milk already and will continue to do so, and we should also note that the Department of Health spends around £63 million a year buying milk for infants.

The dairy industry in Cheshire is one of the great drivers of the rural economy in my county, which is why I was pleased to support dairy farmers in the actions they were taking to defend their livelihoods. Did the Minister also support those protests?

I am about making sure that we have practical solutions that actually deliver for dairy farmers who are facing cash-flow issues, while also ensuring that we have a viable national industry for the future. We do not want to lose really important dairy capacity when we know that there are lots of long-term opportunities—huge opportunities for import substitution, for example. My focus is on practical solutions that can help to achieve that.

T8. With the crisis in the price of liquid milk, one way to help our farmers increase their income is through products—dairy, cheese and additional products. I understand what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State says about labelling, but what specific initiatives do the Government have for developing these products and developing new markets? (901255)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. In the long term, we want to develop processing capacity so that we can export some of our fantastic cheeses more widely around the world. That is why we are investigating the potential to use the European Investment Bank and rural development funds to support the development of that processing capacity.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues who wish to speak, but we must now move on.